Democracy, Representative And Participatory (A)

Democracy was born in the Western world in the form of participatory democracy, making the term participatory democracy redundant. The word participatory discloses the core meaning of popular sovereignty as self-government. In the original ancient Greek meaning, demo-kratia (“rule of the demes,” or “tribes” into which the Athenian people were divided) entailed engaged citizenship and regular participation. In modern times, however, when democracy has become associated more closely with representation, accountability, and a form of indirect government in which the people select the rulers rather than ruling themselves, participatory democracy has come to be seen as an alternative form of democracy. Consequently participatory, or direct or“strong,” democracy and representative democracy have evolved into conceptual antonyms: two fundamentally distinctive forms of democracy rooted in contrary understandings of popular sovereignty as direct self-rule by the people and indirect rule by circulating elites chosen by the people, who otherwise remain outside government.


In principle all democracy is to a certain extent participatory. Every democratic system is rooted in an act of original consent through a popularly ratified social contract or constitution as well as ongoing popular input in the form of periodic elections. To this extent, to say that democracy is consensual is to say that it is participatory. In the modern era, however, participatory democracy implies much more than original consent or periodic elections. It denotes extensive and active engagement of citizens in the governing process, often through participatory devices such as initiatives and referenda, and emphasizes the role of the citizen as an active agent in self-legislation and a real stakeholder in governance.

This is in stark contrast to representative democracy, in which the citizen becomes a passive client of government, a watchdog to whom the government remains accountable but otherwise ignores, and a periodic elector responsible for selecting those who actually govern. Philosophers of participatory democracy such as JeanJacques Rousseau (1762) and Robert Michels (1911) have understood this “thin” representative construction of democracy as contrary to the core meaning of democracy. When there is representation, the democratic principle is nullified. In Michels’s terms, under representative democracy liberty can be said to disappear along with the ballot when it is dropped into the box.


The transition from direct democracy to representative democracy was dictated at least in part by historical changes in the nature and scale of society. Democracy was born in and designed for small-scale societies: towns, poleis, principalities, and city-states of the kind found in ancientGreece, early modern Europe, and pre-Revolutionary America. In such settings active participation by citizens in governance could be seen as synonymous with democracy, both desirable and practicable. However, the transformation of city republics into larger states and empires (Rome, for example, as it moved from a town-based republic to a continental empire) created novel constraints and revealed how early direct democracy was bound by limiting conditions, such as simplicity of manners and interests, relative homogeneity of culture and religion, and a small demographic and geographic scale that allowed the citizenry to meet in common in a public place. The ideal population was perhaps five hundred to five thousand, and the maximum size was approximately twenty thousand citizens: the number of active residents engaged in politics in Athens during the Periclean Age in the mid-fifth century BCE. Aristotle had suggested that democracy could exist only on a territory a man could traverse on his way to join a democratic assembly in a single day.

The increase in scale that came with the evolution of towns into cities, then city-dominated provinces, and finally nation-states consisting of cities and provinces bound by nationalism mandated a reconsideration of democratic principles. If democracy entailed participation by all citizens in basic lawmaking, as Rousseau had insisted in the Social Contract (1762), the scale of capital cities such as Paris, Lisbon, and London ruled out effective participatory democratic rule and thus, for Rousseau, legitimate democracy. The American founders implicitly recognized that critique by arguing that a republic of potentially continental extent could be ruled only by a popular sovereign willing to be represented in the actual governing process. To Rousseau and his allies, that was an impossible compromise, for as Immanuel Kant had argued, autonomy demands self-legislation, and hence only those who govern themselves directly can be said to be free.


In American representative democracy the tensions between direct popular government and indirect rule by chosen surrogates became evident, for the American representative principle was not merely a pragmatic way to preserve democracy in large-scale societies but also implied a critique of direct democracy. Direct popular rule risked enthroning not merely the popular sovereign but an incompetent and impassioned mass: a mob or, in French, a foule.

Representation had the virtue not only of facilitating popular sovereignty in large-scale settings but also of placing a filter between the masses and prudent or “good” government. Representatives had the obligation not only to represent the people’s will but also, in Edmund Burke’s terms, to filter it through and subordinate it to their own prudent judgment. Elected representatives could act in the name of the interests of the people as they understood those interests rather than being bound by the people’s “mandate” based on their own often faulty understanding. Even the popular right to choose representatives might be delegated prudently to other wise electors, as was meant to happen with the Electoral College, through which, in the first years of the American Republic, both senators and a president were to be chosen.

Behind the Madisonian distrust of direct democracy lies distrust of all popular power. Even the ancients worried that, just as aristocracy could deteriorate into oligarchy, democracy could morph into ochlocracy, Aristotle’s term for a people’s tyranny. Although the spirit of modern representative democracy is not antidemocratic, its spirit is cautionary and skeptical about majority rule, mirroring the skepticism about representation that is inherent in direct democracy. If power is dangerous, popular power is more dangerous because it has a righteous legitimacy. Indirect rule thus becomes a check on popular power consistent with the rule of law and constitutional limits on absolute power, especially when that power is popular.


Benjamin R. Barber

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale© 2016

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